The Pitch

How top entrepreneurs approach talent acquisition

In the early years of your startup, you’ll usually do everything yourself. But there comes a time where you have to stop being a one-man sales, marketing and ops machine, and start thinking about bringing in new talent.

Hiring for junior roles is one thing, whether it’s a student to help with social media or a part-time employee to package up customer orders.

But hiring experienced, top-level talent is a different ball game altogether. There are plenty of challenges to deal with, from finding candidates with the right experience to learning to delegate.

We explore the talent acquisition process for startups and hear how successful entrepreneurs have approached it.

What is talent acquisition?

Talent acquisition and recruitment are often used interchangeably. But while they both involve hiring, talent acquisition isn’t just about finding an extra pair of hands. 

Talent acquisition requires you to look at your goals for the company and think carefully about the skills and experience you need to achieve them. Often, you’ll be targeting people who have specialist knowledge, a background in your industry or managerial capabilities.

As part of your startup’s talent acquisition strategy, you might decide to hire:

  • Another co-founder, who can bring in vital skills you’re missing
  • A C-suite exec, like a CTO to lead the tech side of your business
  • A senior manager who can manage junior employees

Common challenges with talent acquisition

There are some challenges that most startups face when it comes to talent acquisition. The good news is that you can bypass a lot of these with a little bit of preparation.

Identifying the role you need

If you’re a fast-growing startup, there are probably a dozen roles you could hire for. It’s important to prioritise and settle on a defined skill set. 

You aren’t hiring another you; the person you bring in should have a clear role and direction. Try and cover too many bases and you risk ending up with a jack of all trades.

If in doubt, start by examining where you’re spending your time. What bottlenecks are you causing? What skills could you bring in to either improve the quality of your output or make your life easier? 

Attracting talent to a startup

It can be hard to compete with more established businesses when recruiting. Bigger businesses have the resources to offer generous salaries, perks programmes and holiday, which startups can’t always commit to.

There’s also the issue of security. Startups come with a certain element of risk, particularly in their first few years – which can be a turn-off for those with mortgages and childcare to think about.

That said, there are lots of things you can still do to draw in top-level talent. You can read more about attracting and retaining talent here.

Delegating tasks

One of the biggest challenges for founders comes right at the end of the talent acquisition process. You’ve identified a missing skill set, found the right person to help take your business forward – now it’s up to you to let go.

Learning to delegate is famously a tough ask for founders; your business is your baby after all. Delegating business-critical tasks – whether it’s attending a key supplier meeting or overseeing a new product launch – can be incredibly nerve-wracking.

It’s important to remember that you can’t run the business alone. Once you’ve made a hire, be prepared to let go of certain responsibilities and trust your new partner or employee to do their job.

Learning to ask for help

Hannah Beaumont-Laurencia founded sustainable fashion brand Beaumont Organic.

As she told Haines Watts’ Owning it series, she wore lots of hats in the early days of her business: visiting suppliers, giving sales pitches and managing invoices. Hannah hired her first junior member of staff three years in, when she realised she was burning out.

“Looking back, I could have got help [sooner] because it’s not even that expensive to either employ a junior member or get interns in to help. But I was literally like, ‘I just need to do it because I know how to do it quicker’. Now I ask for help all the time if I’ve got too much to do in the week,” she said. 

Hannah started hiring more top-level staff to help her manage departments when she realised she needed a greater level of support – something she describes as a “good lesson learned”.

“Initially I’d employ people and think, ‘oh it’s okay, they’ve just come out of university so they’ll be really keen like I was’. But in reality, if they’re that keen, they’d probably start their own business.

“It was better to just employ some more senior staff, so they can own the staff who work within that department. It’s been a good lesson learned. I’ve got two much more senior staff too, who support me because I’m still working across all the departments,” she said.

Don’t dismiss experience outside of your sector

Mark Sapsford and Douglas Edmunds run CapEQ, a mergers and acquisitions firm.

They cite passion as an important element of talent acquisition, because it’s something that can’t be instilled. If a new hire has passion, Douglas explained in this Owning it interview, it helps them to enjoy work, stay stimulated and continue to grow in their role.

However, their most important lesson is to find people unafraid to think outside the box. While a core skill set and level of specialism are needed to work at the company, bringing in people with different backgrounds has been hugely beneficial.

“[It’s about having] that willingness to maybe not accept the first answer, that absolute focus on what the outcome needs to be for the client, and to not be afraid to step up proactively when they need to do something different,” Douglas said.

“The people we’ve got are really experienced and, like us, they have a lot of reference points. Our head of research is a qualified lawyer, which is an atypical education background for somebody in the sector but it just gives him another reference point to use.”

Watch the full interview with Mark and Douglas, plus other business conversations here.

Keeping company values at the forefront

Like many founders, trusting others to take on responsibility and represent the business was daunting for Hannah at Beaumont Organic. 

She describes her talent acquisition process as “quite gruelling” – it includes face-to-face meetings and sessions where she’ll explain what the brand stands for. As for the killer question that cuts through all the bluster? It’s all about their values.

“It’s important we can come to an agreement that our values are aligned. There’s no point in me thinking that they’re great and them thinking we’re just focused on turnover and volume. Obviously that’s important but it’s also really important that they’re selling into shops aligned with our values.

“Once we’ve established they can do the job, we’ll also look for things like trust, honesty and kindness. We basically have a document that we’ll go through with them.”

Ask scenario questions to test responses

Questions based on real-life scenarios are a useful way to test capabilities when you’re interviewing someone. After all, you’re not just checking that someone can do something; it’s important to find out how they’d do it.

“We use lots of scenario-type questions. I want to make sure that if I’m not at the factory, they’re talking to the people there in the same way I’d be talking to them,” Hannah said.

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Kat Haylock

Kat Haylock

Kat is the head of content at Inkwell, the company behind The Pitch. She's worked with small businesses for the last four years, championing Britain's startup scene and anyone who has snacks.

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